My mother died on November 5th 2007, quite suddenly after an illness of less than 24 hours. Apart from the shock which followed I was already in the midst of a particularly difficult phase of life. On top of that, after she’d gone, I came to realise that the relationship which I had always considered to be wholly positive and helpful did, in many respects, feel difficult, destructive and painful.
After my mums death I examined every detail of my life through the lens of that relationship. I blamed her for my shortcomings and cursed her for misunderstanding me. I felt bitterness at the way her own strategies for coping seemed to have made my life harder. I resented the way I so often felt obliged and expected to do her bidding, and the way that going against her wishes would leave me feeling small and unworthy.
In earlier years I spoke proudly of her charitable work and I marvelled at her seemingly unending energy. I was in awe of the way in which she had reinvented herself after retirement to the extent that her life was, in many ways, even richer and more rewarding in the autumn of her life than it had been in its summer. I felt sad at having no knowledge of her “spring”, when she met my father and fell in love. I didn’t know that woman and I only met her, briefly, after he died. I assumed she had existed, but she was not familiar to me. I admired her dedication to her work as a nurse, and looked on with a mixture of astonishment, frustration and pride at the endless hours she would devote to countless elderly people who had nobody, except her.
Mum’s standards were high. She was not superstitious and had a strong faith. She was dismissive of the idea that life should be “fun” and seemingly regarded it as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. She could laugh, but in truth there wasn’t an abundance of laughter in our house. She made her feelings known, her expectations clear and was never afraid to stand up for her beliefs. She would never be beaten down, bullied or taken for granted. She had a compassion which ran deeper than it was possible to see. At least I regularly failed to see it in those days, unaware perhaps of the inherent narcissism of my own youth.
The qualities I harvested from her are ones I use every day, and sometimes, when I am very present with myself, I recognise her hand on mine. Thankfully these days the hand is comforting and nurturing, rather than annoying and controlling. It isn’t that she has changed, it is that I have. I suspect she would have known that I would.
Over the years since her death I have walked a long and arduous road trying to make perfect sense of who I was to her and she to me. I don’t really know why I remained so dedicated. Perhaps it was that I recognised the importance of the journey, and perhaps it is because I am my mothers son and tenacity is simply inevitable. Whichever it is there is a conclusion which I have come upon amongst all the others that strikes as hugely important for all of us.
My mother, your mother and all mothers are subject to the most stretching of expectations. We want our mothers to be just right in every situation. We want them to say the right things, give good advice, give no advice, step in, keep out, feed us, love us, set us free, keep us safe, approve of us, be proud of us, stop asking questions, ask the questions we wish to answer. We want our mothers to be the personification of the word “home”, and in all this it is so easy to forget that our mothers are humans. Our mothers have no special information, no specific genetic pattern, no remarkable inbuilt gift. We forget that they too are a product of their own experiences, their own lives and their own mothers. In our sometimes selfish and restricted perspectives we put our mothers on a pedestal and hold them accountable for all that goes awry, and we wonder why they sometimes fall, or at least appear to.
I think a lot about my mother, and, in many ways, I feel more connected to her than I did when she was alive. I miss her with a depth it is hard to describe, but I am happy for that. I don’t fear sadness. It is apathy, discontent, resentment, self-abandonment and confusion that I try hardest to keep at bay.
I’m sure my mother gave all that she could. It’s worth us remembering that this is the most that any of us will ever have to give, and that any shortfall is, in the end, probably down to us.
This post first appeared in November 2013